Damn. That Car's Electric: The Slow Journey of Getting Off Gas

I sided with Germany when I was 16 and with Japan by my late-20s. They were simply superior to America in most every way. Then the 2008 financial disaster hit, and while bankruptcy loomed, President Obama stepped in and bailed out GM and Chrysler and saved the U.S. auto industry, allowing "made in America" manufacturing to once again flourish. I now side with America for the first time -- having recently purchased my first American car, a 2013 Ford Focus Hatchback. It's got more power, better performance inside and out and better gas mileage compared with my previous car, Japan's Nissan Versa, for just a few thousand dollars more. I've been wanting to buy American for a while, and supported Ford by buying some of their stock a few years back, but until recently there wasn't a small, good quality, fuel-efficient, affordable car available. There are many now and they're proving to be good for the U.S. car industry. They're even seeing some success in the hybrid and electric markets.

For instance, Ford is now selling the C-MAX, a hybrid car (with a plug-in model) similar to the Toyota Prius, but less expensive and roomier. I test drove one recently and can vouch for this. Consumers who care about fuel efficiency and want to buy American now have their car -- and it's selling well. In its first full month of sales, the C-MAX Hybrid outsold the Prius, which is the larger, family-friendly version of the Prius, with which the C-MAX competes most directly.

Ford, the only major U.S. car company not to take money from the government in 2008, has acknowledged that fuel efficiency is important to consumers and has created a fleet of fuel-efficient cars that are affordable, good-looking and fun to drive. In the past, it wasn't economical for the auto companies to care much about mileage, but times have changed. Global climate change is no longer speculation, and, perhaps more importantly to most Americans, gas is no longer cheap. But even if you don't believe in science, wouldn't you still want to get off oil, increase fuel efficiency and pollute less? Protecting, preserving and saving the environment should not be a political issue, but rather a common sense, humanitarian issue as it affects everyone, but unfortunately it's all about money -- if energy-efficient autos and renewable energy can be profitable then the business community will get on board.

Which leads me to Tesla Motors.

Tesla, another American car company -- the same company former Republican presidential nominee Willard Mitt Romney repeatedly called a loser during the 2012 campaign -- is now leading the way in electric vehicles. Earlier this month Consumer Reports called Tesla's Model S the best car that it had ever tested (ever! including gas engines). In November the Model S won the prestigious Motor Trend Car of the Year award, and a month later the 100 percent electric car was chosen as CNET's tech car of the year -- beating out the likes of BMW, Audi, Toyota and Ford. In the first quarter of this year more people bought the Model S than bought any of the similarly priced gas-powered luxury cars from the top three German auto companies (Mercedes, BMW and Audi), and Tesla is now forecasting sales of 21,000 cars in 2013, which means big profits for the Silicon Valley-based auto startup.

And this "loser" of a company announced last week that it has repaid the $465 million loan from the government nearly 10 years before it was scheduled to do so.

But there is one major problem with the Tesla Model S. It's expensive as hell, with a starting price of $70,000. However, that price does not include the $7,500 federal tax credit -- which should be far higher -- and, if you ask me, the fools driving around their mammoth trucks and SUVS, which often get single-digit mpgs (i.e., the Dodge Durango SLT gets an estimated 8 mpg in the city) should pay a fee that goes directly into a fund that gives grants to renewable energy startups. So far, Tesla is a great success story, both environmentally and financially, but they need to produce an electric car for the average consumer, so we can all drive 100 percent emission free; fortunately that may now come soon. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week that the company plans to make a slightly smaller model and the price may be cut in half.

Until then there is the far more affordable, 100 percent electric Nissan Leaf, with a starting price of just over $27,000 (not including the $7,500 tax credit). The Leaf gets about 130 MPGe (miles per gallon gasoline equivalent) and 75 miles per charge, compared with the Tesla Model S which gets about 89 MPGe and 265 miles per charge (and with the expansion of Tesla's Supercharger network Tesla owners will be able to drive from LA to NY by the end of this year). Ford also has an electric car on the road -- the Ford Focus Electric -- starting at just under $40,000 (not including the $7,500 tax credit) which gets 110 MPGe while getting 76 miles per charge. Considering the average number of miles driven per day is 29, these cars are quite practical. And these less-expensive electric cars have helped triple the number sold over the past two years from 17,500 in 2011 to 53,000 in 2012.

I also test-drove the Nissan Leaf, which has now sold more than 25,000 vehicles in the U.S. since the car debuted in December 2010. I called Koons Nissan, a dealership outside of D.C., and set up an appointment to drive one of the two they had remaining. The salesman said they're selling about two or three a week, and as soon as I got behind the wheel I could tell why. It's a cool car, with a nice, roomy interior. And it moves. The car has more power than my gas-powered Ford Focus, and I easily got it over 85 mph on the highway. When I got back to the dealership and handed the salesman the keys he looked at me and asked, "What'd you think?" All I could say was, "Damn. That car's electric."

A hundred years ago there were more electric-powered cars on the road than gas-powered. Let's make that happen again, and let's hope our American car companies are the ones leading the way.